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What Kind of Quarterbacks do Penn State’s James Franklin & Ricky Rahne Like Best?

by on March 17, 2019 7:30 PM

After three years and 40 games of RPO savant and uber-competitor Trace McSorley, Penn State's James Franklin and Ricky Rahne have a decision to make.

Who will be their starting quarterback in 2019:

Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford?

It’s more than just picking the first QB not named McSorley or Christian Hackenberg to start for the Nittany Lions in 79 games.

Style of play, health, loyalty, first-team reps, locker room impact, confidence (both in the QB and by the QB) and long-term vs. short-team all figure into the equation.

Stevens has one season of eligibility remaining; Clifford has three.

Stevens, the erstwhile all-everything Lion at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, is perceived as more of the run-pass QB who fits more of the mold that Penn State has used to run off a 31-9 record using, essentially, The Joe Moorhead Offense.

Stevens hasn’t been 100% heathy for over a year, and the last time he played more than a quarter at quarterback in a real game was back in 2014 as a wishbone QB at Decatur Central High School in Indiana.

Clifford (6-2, 218) is not really a runner. He fits more of the in-the-pocket gunslinger mold of past Nittany Lion QBs Chuck Fusina, Todd Blackledge and Kerry Collins (that’s a helluva trio for Cliff to emulate: they were a combined 79-12 as starters, each holding a No. 1 poll ranking at some part of his career).

Cliff, too, has had his injuries — both in high school and at Penn State, when he busted his hand in a self-inflicted instance caused by a burst of immature frustration (which he has addressed and, mostly, ameliorated). He’s essentially untested at the college level for any extended periods as well, despite some big throws in 2018.


So, individual players aside, is there a style of player — a type of quarterback — that Franklin and his offensive coordinator prefer?

In a word: No.

That’s based on a big sample size.

Plus a little unsolicited feedback from CJF. 

A few years ago, when I pointed out in a column that Franklin’s QBs at Vandy did their share of running, the head coach very quickly pointed out to me that he’s coached a fair number of traditional drop-back passers in his career.

Good point, James:

Josh Freeman at Kansas State and your QBs at Maryland were more passers than runners. And at Vanderbilt, the quarterbacks you and Ricky went with (RR coached the QBs) threw for 8,002 yards on 1,072 pass attempts – and ran the ball 311 times (not counting sacks). That’s a breakdown of 78% pass/22% run. 

(By comparison, in three seasons, McSorley threw for 9,899 yards on 1,215 pass attenpts and ran the ball 389 times, sans sacks. That’s a breakdown of 76% pass/24% run. Pretty similar to that previous institution.).       


The next starting quarterback for Penn State will be the ninth such starter for Franklin and Rahne.

For six of them, Franklin and Rahne have coached together. That dates back to 2006 to their first year together at Kansas State. And as a head coach, Franklin has had five different starters — Larry Smith, Jordan Rodgers and Austyn Carta-Samuels at Vanderbilt, and Hack and Trace at Penn State.

They’ve coached a smorgasbord of ’em:

Dual threat and pocket. RPO and classic pro. Experienced and raw. Fifth-year seniors and rookies. Smart and smart-asses. Short and long. More of a classic and Moorhead guys.

That dates back to Kansas State, where in 2006 Franklin was the first-year QB coach and offensive coordinator, fresh off a 4-12 season as the wide receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers that got the entire staff fired.

Rahne was K-State’s offensive GA, new to Manhattan, after a season coaching running backs at his alma mater, Cornell (where he was a school HOF QB), and a one-year stint at Holy Cross, where he was the assistant to the D-line coach, a wild dog named Sean Spencer. (Yes, Chaos and Rahne knew each before they knew CJF.)

Their starting quarterback at K-State that first year was Freeman, a freshman who had committed to the Wildcats before Franklin came to town. Freeman went on to throw for over 8,000 yards and 44 TDs in college before an NFL career that flamed out after six seasons, despite being picked in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


Freeman, McSorley and Maryland's Danny O'Brien aside, the Franklin-Rahne duo has preferred veteran quarterbacks. O’Brien was a redshirt freshman starter for Maryland in 2010, when he was named the ACC rookie of the year under Franklin. He eventually transferred, and in 2012 O’Brien visited Penn State while pondering a switch to play under Bill O’Brien. (He ended up at Wisconsin.)

And even at that, McSorley was in his third year in the Penn State program, when he drew the starting job. McSorley got news that the No. 1 spot was his on his 21st birthday, so he was hardly a rookie when he got the keys to the offense. Likewise, Clifford will be in his third season and also 21 years old when 2019 opens up — so he's hardly the kid that some still perceive him to be.

Of the three starting quarterbacks Franklin and Rahne had at Vanderbilt in 2011-13, two were fifth-year starters: Smith and Carta-Samuels. The third — Jordan, who is the younger brother of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers; yes, Franklin coached them both — started part of his fourth season and all of his fifth. They were 24, 22 and 22 years old. (Stevens will be 22 and 9 months old when PSU opens its season in 2019.)

The juxtaposition is Hackenberg, who already had a year as a starter when Franklin and Rahne came to town. Hackenberg was 19 and a one-year starter in 2014, Franklin’s first season at Penn State and Hack’s second season as a starter.


Here’s a look at the statistics for the starting quarterbacks under Franklin in his reign as a QB coach, offensive coordinator and head coach. (Rahne was on Franklin’s staff for Freeman, the three Vandy quarterbacks, plus Hackenberg and McSorley):

2016-18: TRACE McSORLEY (6-0, 203), Penn State — junior, senior and fifth-year senior; started 40 games (31-9). PASS as a starter: 700-1,175-9,714 yards; 59.6%; 25 int., 75 TD; 144.5 pass eff. RUN: 460-1,654, 30 TD.

2014-15: CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG (6-4, 236), Penn State sophomore and junior; started 26 games (14-12). PASS: 472-843-5,502 yards; 56%; 21 int., 28 TD; pass eff. 109.4 (2014) and 123.93 (2015). RUN: 159-(-174).

2013: AUSTYN CARTA-SAMUELS (6-1, 215), Vanderbilt — Fifth-year senior, started 11 games (8-3). PASS: 193-281-2,268 yards; 68.7%; 9 int., 11 TD; 143.0 pass eff. RUN: 75-115, 5 TD.

2012: JORDAN RODGERS (6-1, 212), Vanderbilt — Fifth-year senior, started 13 games (9-4). PASS: 191-319-2,539 yards; 59.9%; 5 int., 15 TD; 139.1 pass eff. RUN: 91-71, 2 TD.

2011: JORDAN RODGERS, Vanderbilt — Fourth-year senior, started 7 games (4-3). PASS: 108-216-1,524 yards; 50%; 10 int., 9 TD; 113.8 pass eff. RUN: 117-420, 4 TD.

2011: LARRY SMITH (6-2, 220), Vanderbilt — Fifth-year senior, started 6 games (3-3). PASS: 68-123-668 yards; 55.3%; 6 int., 5 TD; 113.9 pass eff. RUN: 42-17, 2 TD.

2010: DANNY O’BRIEN (6-2, 212), Maryland — Redshirt freshman, started 13 games (9-4). PASS: 192-337-2,438 yards; 57%; 8 int., 2 TD; 134.5 pass eff. RUN:  31-(-48), 1 TD.

2009: CHRIS TURNER (6-4, 220), Maryland  — Senior, 12 starts (2-10). PASS: 180-303-2,069 yards; 59.4%; 10 int., 10 TD; 121 pass eff. RUN: 84-(-22), 2 TD.

2008: CHRIS TURNER, Maryland — Junior, 13 starts (8-5). PASS: 214-374-2,516 yards; 57.2%; 13 int., 10 TD; 119.3 pass eff. RUN: 43-154, 1 TD.

2007: JOSH FREEMAN (6-6, 249), Kansas State — Sophomore, 12 starts (5-7). PASS: 316-499-3,353; 63.3%; 11 int., 18 TD; 127.3 pass eff. RUN: 54-(-21), 2 TD.

2006: JOSH FREEMAN, Kansas State — True freshman, 13 starts (7-6). PASS: 140-270-1,780; 51.8%; 6 int., 15 TD; 103.5 pass eff. RUN: 54-(-40), 4 TD.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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